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Bottom Up
Independent Cause

Why Bottom-Up Politics Is the Key to Political Reform

2 min read
Bottom Up
Laurette LaLiberte · Apr 23, 2024

“Mobilize your friends and neighbors to understand that your day-to-day involvement with local government matters far more than a referendum on the White House every four years.” ~ Michelle Wu, Mayor of Boston

In an era where national political figures and high-stakes presidential races seem to suck all of the oxygen from the room, the transformative power of local politics remains an untapped reservoir for genuine, impactful change. The "bottom-up" approach, or "trickle-up" politics, places the spotlight on local races and governance as the foundation for comprehensive political reform. 

Join us as we delve into why the most significant and tangible changes often occur at the local level of government, where the majority of elected officials operate and directly influence the day-to-day lives of citizens. We’ll also cover how local politics can have an impact beyond their communities and go over some strategies that will empower citizens and local politicians to become the change they want to see in our government. 

The Impact of Local Government

Local governments are composed of thousands of moving parts. Offices include seats on city councils, county boards, school boards, and more. These local politicians levy taxes, regulate how and where local business can be conducted, and determine how public schools function. They have dominion over where you live and the availability of public services. If you have good roads, nice parks, accessible public health services, and a well-stocked local library, that’s thanks, in large part, to your local government. 

There are more than 500,000 elected officials in the United States. When you compare that to 535 members of Congress, you can see that the potential for influence that begins at the local level is immense. 

Local governments manage a wide array of critical services, including policing, public education, public safety, housing, and transportation. Decisions made at this level directly affect community well-being and prosperity. However, local policies can also initiate a chain reaction that takes such initiatives from town to country-wide by implementing important policy positions that work. 

Tangible Change through Local Initiatives

Real-world cases abound where local or state-level politicians have initiated significant reforms. For example, marijuana decriminalization in several states began as local initiatives before influencing national conversations and policy. In the same manner, minimum wage increases in cities like Seattle and San Francisco set precedents that spurred state-wide legislation and fueled the debate at a national level. 

Towns and cities can act as proving grounds to test the benefits and viability of certain policies. For example, alternative voting systems that were mostly being used in small-town America in the 1980s and 90s are now being tested in more than 260 locations in the United States, including two states, Alaska and Maine, that have adopted ranked choice voting as their primary means of conducting state elections. Innovations in areas like traffic engineering, sanitation, and community planning are also often tested in a few key locations before seeing wider adaptation.

These examples underscore the power of local government to experiment with policies that can lead to broader shifts in policy. But what actions will it take to usher in change that trickles up to our national leadership? 

Leveraging Local Politics for National Impact

The bottom-up approach leverages local politics in a way that not only addresses immediate community needs but also lays the groundwork for national reform. By focusing on local elections, advocates for political change can build a strong, grassroots foundation of support. 

In European countries that are testing a bottom-up approach to governance, there is a more formal method of implementation that creates four stages or levels of participation:

  1. Information: Informing the public at various stages of policy development through methods such as media campaigns, forums, and public exhibitions.

  2. Consultation: This is at the development/planning phase and involves local audits and participatory analysis in collaboration with community groups and leaders. 

  3. Joint Development: This involves all stakeholders and active participants, and takes place at project launch as well as during periods of ongoing analysis and refinement. 

  4. Collective Decision-making: This involves project leaders at all phases of development and implementation.  

If we use a similar model of bottom-up political engagement, the above strategies enable the cultivation of community organizers and future leaders who, starting from local positions, can rise to higher offices with a deep understanding of the issues and a proven record of governance.

Local vs. National Politics

Admittedly, it’s difficult to foster political will among a voting population that feels disenfranchised and apathetic, especially in a top-down structure where politicians are incentivized to hold onto power at all costs. In some cases, local initiatives run afoul of state or federal regulations and policies that are more general and less community-oriented. 

Residents of various locations in Michigan sometimes experience this disconnect due to implementation of the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act. That piece of legislation allows state-appointed “emergency managers” to step in and take over the functions of local government. 

It was intended to help communities in need. However, implementation has been problematic at times due to a top-down view of financial considerations that are at odds with the needs of the community. This was one of the factors that created the Flint water crisis

This type of disconnect has been described in various studies attempting to decide which is a better approach to governance. For example, a paper released in 2001 by deLeon and deLeon for the University of Colorado found that advocates of a bottom-up approach to policy were more practical and community-minded, while top-down politics is less democratic and narrowly focused on the needs and priorities of special interests. 

The Role of Engagement and Participation

Engagement and participation are key to empowering the bottom-up approach. One place to start is by increasing voter turnout for state and local elections. Voter turnout in local elections traditionally lags behind national elections, with an average of less than 30% of eligible voters participating in off-year municipal elections. 

In an effort to turn things around, some locations are attempting a more standardized, unified election schedule. For example, the city of Baltimore tried switching to on-cycle elections and increased voter turnout by 47%

A lack of engagement represents a missed opportunity for communities to shape their futures. By prioritizing awareness of and participation in local elections, citizens will have a more immediate and pronounced impact on their governance.

In order to foster political reform in the United States through a bottom-up approach, we can consider initiatives that empower local communities and address specific systemic issues. For example, People’s Assemblies in places like Jackson, Mississippi, allow folks in the community to come together and discuss common causes and goals. 

Areas of improvement include:

#1: Civic Engagement and Education

The Strategy: Prioritizing community involvement in political processes and improving civic education to create a system of empowered, informed decision-making.

Example: Participatory Budgeting in New York City

New York City's Participatory Budgeting process exemplifies civic engagement and education in action. This initiative allows residents to decide how to spend a portion of the public budget in their communities. It educates citizens on government budgeting processes and empowers them to make informed decisions about funding allocations for local projects. This form of direct democracy has led to the funding of hundreds of community projects, including improvements to schools, parks, libraries, and public housing.

#2: Empowerment through Local Governance 

The Strategy: Strengthening the autonomy and capabilities of local governments to address community-specific needs more effectively.

Example: Minneapolis' Response to Policing and Safety

Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Minneapolis, Minnesota embarked on a journey to redefine public safety and policing within the city. This effort aimed to strengthen local governance by involving the community in the decision-making process to address their specific needs. 

The city council proposed a plan to replace the police department with a new Department of Community Safety, emphasizing a holistic, public health-based approach to public safety. This move towards empowering local governance showcases how cities can adapt and reform systems to better serve their communities

#3: Community-Led Policy Initiatives

The Strategy: Encouraging grassroots movements to propose and advocate for policies that reflect the unique needs of their communities.

Example: The Fair Chance Housing Ordinance in Seattle

Seattle, Washington's Fair Chance Housing Ordinance is a prime example of community-led policy initiatives. Advocated by grassroots organizations and individuals impacted by housing discrimination, the ordinance prohibits landlords from denying housing to applicants based on criminal history. This policy reflects the unique needs and advocacy of the community. It aims to reduce barriers to housing for former inmates and contribute to their successful reintegration into society.

#4: Inter-Community Collaboration

The Strategy: Promoting cooperation between different communities to address regional challenges and share best practices.

Example: Regional Climate Action in the San Francisco Bay Area

The San Francisco Bay Area's Regional Climate Action Strategy is an example of inter-community collaboration to tackle climate change. Multiple municipalities in the region have come together to share resources, best practices, and strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This collaborative effort includes initiatives for sustainable transportation, energy efficiency, and resilience planning, highlighting how communities can work together to address broader regional challenges.

#5: Transparency and Accountability

The Strategy: Implementing measures at the local level to enhance government transparency and hold officials accountable.

Example: Open Data Initiatives in Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville, Kentucky has embraced transparency and accountability through its open data portal, "LouieStat." This initiative allows citizens to access a wide array of government data, including metrics on public services, crime rates, and spending. LouieStat has improved government accountability by enabling residents to track the performance and efficiency of different departments, which promotes a culture of transparency and encourages community involvement in governance.

These actions can lead to more responsive, inclusive, and effective governance, addressing local needs while contributing to broader political reform. Seeing independents succeed at the state and local levels also inspires other civic-minded individuals to follow suit. As more independent and reform-minded candidates enter public service, it demonstrates to voters that the two-party political system is not the only game in town. 

How Is Building a Bottom-Up Movement

Recognizing the potential of local politics to initiate national change, is building a bottom-up movement. We focus on empowering independent candidates to run for office at the local level, which diversifies the political landscape and introduces fresh perspectives into the political dialogue. 

By supporting independent candidates, aims to break the binary hold of the traditional two-party system, encouraging a politics that is more representative, inclusive, and responsive to community needs.

The journey toward political reform is complex and multifaceted, but the bottom-up approach offers a promising pathway to improvement. By concentrating efforts on local governance and empowering a new wave of political leaders, there is potential to not only address immediate community concerns, but also to lay the groundwork for national and even global change. 

The Future of Political Reform

While the power and prestige of national politics is often what captures the public's attention, the real engine for sustainable political reform lies at the local level. Through a concerted focus on local elections, an increased focus on voter engagement, and supporting movements that empower independent candidates, the bottom-up approach to politics holds the key to unlocking meaningful, lasting change. 

As more citizens recognize and act on the potential of local governance, the path toward a more equitable, responsive, and effective political system becomes increasingly clear. 

If you’re ready to become part of the solution, join’s community of independent voters and candidates today.


Civic Engagement
Independent Movement
Electoral Reform
Bottom Up
By Laurette LaLiberte
Laurette LaLiberte is an activist and freelance writer located in Michigan.